Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative and innovation.

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February 18th, 2010

Who is an Ideal Juror?

Narrative

One of the questions we discussed in yesterday’s narratives and management class is what would constitute an ideal juror and whether the protagonists of A Trial by Jury (Graham Burnett) and Twelve Angry Men (juror number 8, portrayed by Henry Fonda) meet that definition. Burnett came off well in the discussion, with the conclusion that, as foreman, he managed the process effectively and when the discussion showed that most jurors favoured a not guilty verdict he found a respectful way to push the last holdouts to unanimity.

The assessment of juror number 8 was contested. The received opinion, of course, is that he heroically led the eleven other jurors to change their minds. The alternative opinion – presently very persuasively – is that he departed significantly from the profile of an ideal juror, someone rationally and dispassionately assessing the evidence. Rather he made up his mind quickly, and then used a wide variety of persuasive techniques – some more emotional than logical – to sell his conclusion to the others. One instance noted was his baiting of juror number 3 – the angry father – into a confrontation. By this standard, jurors closer to the ideal would be the eminently rational stockbroker (number 4) or European watchmaker (number 11).

I think this is a valuable and thought-provoking commentary on juror number 8. There are a few things, though, we could say in justifying his behaviour. First, it is clear from the deliberations that the accused had very ineffective legal representation. Juror number 8 was, in essence, acting as his lawyer. Second, the standard of decision-making in a jury – unanimity – requires intense interaction among jurors. Third, the movie made it clear that, if convicted, the accused would be executed. So, for the architect, the end – saving an innocent life – justified the means. Juror number 3 emerged from the process embarrassed and possibly humiliated, but juror number 8 would have claimed that he did what had to be done.

One might contrast Burnett and juror number 8 because juror number 8 had to sway eleven colleagues, while, in Burnett’s case, there was a strong majority favouring acquittal from the outset (eight in the first vote), so getting to unanimity was not as difficult.

One question that arose was that of intention and action. Because Twelve Angry Men is presented as a behavioural narrative and because juror number 8 revealed nothing of himself or his thinking, we don’t know whether, for instance, he thought the accused innocent right at the outset and was only feigning uncertainty as a tactic to start the discussion, or whether he was actually uncertain.

A Trial by Jury, as a first person narrative, was much more transparent about the relationship between intention and action in Burnett’s case. Burnett tells us how the trial left him favouring acquittal and how the discussion deepened that belief. Burnett also makes clear why he departed from his initial (and irresponsible) preference for a hung jury and began to push the process toward unanimity.

The three angriest men – juror numbers 3 (the angry father), 10 (the bigot), and 7 (the salesman with baseball tickets) – had what was in effect a meeting-before-the-meeting, where, in the presence of the other jurors, they were quite explicit about their agendas. Normally these would be hidden agendas, but they immediately revealed them. As the deliberations proceeded, it became increasingly evident to the other jurors and even to these three that these hidden agendas were illegitimate reasons for a conviction.

Juror number 8 was a much more skillful player of organizational politics. He knew the importance of keeping his cards close to his chest. The three angriest men were, in contrast, na

February 4th, 2010

The Narratives Around Us

Narrative

This week I was on the lookout for compelling narratives out there in the zeitgeist and found two worth discussing, both focusing on automobile safety (or the lack thereof).

The anchor story on the front page of last Monday’s (Feb. 1, 2010) New York Times was headlined “Toyota’s Slow Awakening to a Deadly Problem.” The writer, Bill Vlasic, instead of using the standard inverted pyramid approach that involves summarizing the entire story in the first sentence, took a narrative approach designed to grab the reader’s attention. He started with the story of a Lexus that sped out of control near San Diego last August 28, quoted the 911 call from the car (“we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … hold on and pray”), and told us the tragic outcome: the car colliding with an SUV, bursting into flames, and all four occupants dead. This narrative then introduced a more measured account of driver complaints of unintended acceleration of Toyotas and the history of government investigations of the problem.

I think the Toyota safety story will play out over the next few months, and possibly years, as a fascinating case of conflicting narratives. Toyota’s narrative will be the standard crisis management narrative: we’re aware there is a problem and we’re fixing it as fast as we can, in short, we’re in control. The US Government’s narrative is a retrospective one. We knew there was a problem long ago, we brought it to the attention of the company and, because they appear to have been dilatory, we will not only put pressure on them to solve the problem now, but hold them accountable – through civil litigation – for past errors. The third narrative is that of the victims, or relatives of deceased victims of unintentionally accelerating Toyotas, who will be launching huge law suits. The government and victims’ narratives have the potential to be with us for a long time, no matter how much Toyota tries to change the story.

The second narrative was from the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a major teaching hospital in Toronto specializing in, among other things, emergency medicine. It appears as both a subway poster and 30 second commercial (the latter can be found on the banner at sunnybrook.ca). The narrative starts with a car crash, a flight to the hospital by helicopter, a team of 36 specialists having 36 minutes to “perform the impossible,” the victim in bed on a ventilator and then learning to walk with an artificial leg. The narrative ends by identifying Sunnybrook, its website, its slogan (innovation when it matters most), and its pitch for support.

In narrative terms, a lot was going on in those 30 seconds. It’s a clear instance of the heroic genre, in which a desperate situation is saved. In the classic case, the hero is an individual, but in this case it’s a team, an identification that presages the institutional identity that will be revealed at the end of the story. There are also some subtle messages about the nature of the hospital. In the second frame, the victim is airlifted, rather than brought by ambulance, implying that this is a major regional hospital, not just a local one. In the last frame, the victim is learning to walk with a prosthetic leg, implying that the hospital provides, not only acute care, but comprehensive care and rehabilitation.

The narrator is the omniscient voice behind the scenes. Where does the story fit on the scale running from historically accurate to purely invented? We don’t know if this is a true story and the victim in the story an actual patient or an actor. Or perhaps Sunnybrook’s communications department would tell us the story represents what happens there all the time. An alternative would have been to present the story as a first person narrative, explicitly labeled as a testimonial by a former patient. Would first person testimonial have been a better choice than reenactment (of some kind) with an omniscient narrator?

Finally, it was a good idea to get the audience’s attention by presenting a gripping life-and-death story first and only in the last five seconds revealing the sponsor and purpose of the story.

So here we have two examples of narrative around us, indeed so much a part of our consciousness that we likely take them for granted. But when we start to analyze the narratives we begin to understand why and how they were used, how they were shaped by their creator, and the role they play in communicating a message.

January 29th, 2010

The Harper and Obama Websites: One Voice or Many?

Government, Politics

I’ve been looking at the Government of Canada portal and Prime Minister Harper’s website as well as the White House portal. The differences between the US and Canadian sites are dramatic.

In a word, the essence of the Canadian sites is political messaging, and the message is all about Stephen Harper. Both the Canada portal and the PM’s site have three columns, and the eye is drawn to the top of the middle column – the widest column – which contains news stories almost always featuring the photogenic (or not) Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister’s site has the news of the day dominating the central column, priorities and utilities in the left column and video and audio in the right column. Today, there are 7 – count

January 21st, 2010

The Canada Revenue Agency: A Hotbed of Innovation?

Government

For the skeptics who claim that innovation in government is an oxymoron, the notion that a tax collection agency could be innovative seems even more oxymoronic. Yet my intuition tells me that the Canada Revenue Agency indeed has bragging rights to such a claim.

Historically, it has been a rapid adopter of information technology, using it to enhance service by providing for payment online or over the telephone and to enhance compliance through aggressive data mining. Its status as a special operating agency, discussed in David Brown’s article in the most recent issue of Canadian Public Administration, has likely facilitated its innovativeness.

More recently, the Harper Government has likely become a driver of innovation, because of its use of tax credits – rather than spending programs – to implement social and economic policy. This philosophy of government tends to leave the program departments sitting on their hands but puts the onus on CRA. Some recent examples that come to mind are tax credits for child care, child fitness, disabilities, public transit use, and now home renovations.

For each such initiative, CRA has to come up with a precise definition of what is creditable, communicate the ensuing rules to the public, and ensure compliance. The latter would involve requiring taxpayers, or their income tax preparers, to keep receipts and occasionally auditing. The home renovation tax credit will be an interesting case. It has been widely advertised and tremendously popular. As the end of the eligibility period and this year’s tax filing date approach, the question that comes to mind is what sort of auditing CRA will do to ensure that taxpayers have been following the rules. Given the populist nature of this program – with a maximum permissible claim of $ 9000 in expenditures – the standard practice of auditing the few biggest users won’t work. The possibility of the program being extended in the upcoming budget underlines the importance of effective administration.

While the next federal budget is likely to involve expenditure cuts or constraints, I would be very surprised if the Harper Government didn’t extend its philosophy of populist tax credits in some other area, again calling upon CRA for implementation.

As a public management blogger and a taxpayer who has taken advantage of several of these programs (universal child care, child fitness, home renovation), what I see is the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline is what CRA is doing to implement these initiatives. I think there is an interesting story here of innovative policy implementation for a public management researcher to explore.

January 6th, 2010

A Look Back at the Final Exam in Management and Narrative

Narrative

I see a final exam as an opportunity to challenge students to demonstrate what they have learned by applying the course material to situations they have not encountered in the course. But because the examinations are never returned, the learning loop is not completed. To rectify this, today’s post will be about the final exam in Management C35 (Narratives on Management and Organization) given last month.

The first question highlighted the work of young adults: learning to perform their chosen trade effectively, finding and learning from a mentor, and defining the boundary between professional obligations and personal life. Students had little difficulty choosing characters in the course (for example, Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men, and Kevin Calhoun in City Hall) and explaining how each dealt with each of the challenges. The most ambiguous of the challenges is finding a mentor. In some cases, such as City Hall, it turns out that the mentor has values his prot